When John Samuel realized he was losing his vision, he started to hide from others and from himself. He knew what was happening, but he didn’t want to admit it. His journey from embarrassment and fear to accepting his disability as a superpower took over 20 years.
And then…John found an opportunity to see once again.
John Samuel: I reached out to every Triangle business with a diversity inclusion program, not a single one responded to me. I started thinking about it, like with my education, my experience, and my privilege, if I can’t find a job, what are other people who are blind going to face?
Dana Kadwell: Welcome everyone to Hustle and Gather, a podcast by inspiring the everyday entrepreneur to take the leap. I’m Dana
Courtney Hopper: and I’m Courtney.
Dana: And we are two sisters who love business. On this show, we talk about the ups and downs to the hustle and the reward at the end of the journey.
Courtney: And we know all the challenges that come with starting a business. Between operating our wedding venue, doing speaking and consulting, and starting our luxury wedding planning company, we wake up and hustle every day
Dana: But we love what we do. And today we’re talking with John Samuel, founder and CEO of Ablr. Ablr is a digital accessibility and inclusion company that was founded on the key principle that all digital content, including websites, videos, applications, are accessible for everyone, no exception. John, welcome to Hustle and Gather.
John: Well, thank you. I’m excited to be here.
Dana: So, you know, my husband’s name is Samuel John.
John: Oh, really?
Dana: I didn’t even like to connect until I read it out loud. I was like, oh, that’s because I call him Samuel John all the time, but yeah.
John: That’s funny, and so you know, these, these first names, right? I have three first, my name is John George Samuel. I got three first names in there, you can’t trust them.
Courtney: What alias is going by today, right?
Dana: All right. Well, we’re so excited to have you know, you have such an incredible and inspiring story. And so why don’t you talk a little bit about your background and tell us how you how Ablr began.
John: Yeah, well, that’s a, that’s a loaded question. I I’m originally born and raised in Cary, North Carolina.
And there’s not many people who are actually from Cary, but you know, so I actually, my, my, my family immigrated from India in 1969 to the US and when I was in high school, I started noticing changes in my sight, but I just didn’t know what it was. I just thought maybe I’m a bad driver, or maybe I was partying too much.
And, and so when I got to college, it was up in school in Richmond, Virginia. And I was at Virginia Commonwealth University and that’s when I was just walking into way too many things. And my shins were always just cut up and bruised and I knew something was off. And so I went and saw a specialist and I was diagnosed with a degenerative eye condition called retinitis pigmentosa.
And I was told I was going blind. And so as an 18, 19-year-old kid, it was just devastating. And I had my actions led to me failing out of college. And so I ended up I was embarrassed and ashamed to tell people that I had failed out of college and that I was going blind. So I ended up coming back home to Raleigh and moving out with my high school buddies.
I knew I had to get out of North Carolina because once I graduated, I got to get out because I was still driving and I was like, this reverse vampire. I get up, you’d see me out during the daytime but once you get dusk, I had to be off the road, cause it just wasn’t safe. And you know, in North Carolina there was no public transportation.
So once I, once I finished with it, I got to get out of here. And I ended up moving out to Bangalore, India. And I had visited Bangalore India, cause my dad was the head of Nortel there for a few years and I had seen it and I knew I could get a car and drive it for pretty cheap. So I moved out there and the challenges I faced of being an Indian American kid in India was it was just, it was so difficult.
It was a, this is discrimination, just, it was struggling, the tongue lashing, just yelling at an office is I was like, this isn’t the place for me. And after two years I moved back home and moved to New York City. So New York city was a place where I just started to, you know, I started working for the city of New York.
But again, this is where I had to learn how to navigate the, navigate without being able to see and not being able to tell people. But this is the first time I started to realize that the issues I was facing using computers and doing my work were actually accessibility issues. And I started to, I found this over Microsoft magnifying mouse, which allowed me to do my job just like my car and driver in India.
And so I actually when I start looking at my friends in New York, they’re moving up in their law firms, they were joining hedge funds and I just, just didn’t have that same type of career trajectory. And I didn’t know what to do. So my first entrepreneurial efforts actually started right after that, because I heard from this guy I worked with in India and he was on the board of directors of a cell phone tower manufacturing company.
And they wanted to start up a company and Cameroon, which is in west central Africa. And so when I heard about this, I was like, send me out there, I’ll go do this. And so he, he took a chance on me, but one of the executives of this company found out that I couldn’t see, they said, hey, we can’t, they’re not going to send me out there.
And I convinced them. And I moved out there after convincing them and they gave me $20,000 and I started up a company there. And from scratch, I had no idea about French. Like it was a French English-speaking country. I had no idea how to speak French. I had hadn’t even seen it when a cell phone tower was, but all I knew was I knew I wanted to be successful and I had no other place to go.
And I didn’t see any other future for myself. And to that $20,000 investment turned into $12 million in 14 months and 2.4 million of profits.
Yeah. And that, after three years I had spread that company across Africa. I said, by the time I left, we had sales operations in 22 countries. And came back home to the US and the, and I know this is all a long story about how I got the abler, but it’s all kind of pieces to it because he was that experience of building a company, being able to know I could do this, but I was still not talking about my vision loss.
I had figured out how to fake it being blind. I use my feet. I used my other senses to get around, but when I got to, I moved back to the US to do my MBA, and I moved to DC when I was in my first week of orientation. That’s when I was that this event where that these name cards and I couldn’t see where I supposed to go.
So I turned to the person next to me, it happened be the associate Dean of the business school. And she’s the one who recruited me to come out there. And she had no idea that I couldn’t see. And so she, she actually had a child with special needs and could empathize with what I was going through. And she encouraged me to be open about my vision loss.
And, and so I started talking, she’s like talk to your classmates about it. So I did. And I’ll have to say that was the first time I could be my authentic self and I was able to open up my heart and I met my wife in the program. These are things that I never thought possible to have a successful business in Africa now to have be able to find someone I could open up and just be truthful about my vision loss with.
But then when I started looking for jobs after my MBA, I couldn’t find anything. And I started, you know, it was because I wasn’t open about my vision loss with companies, interviews like this, you know, they went great of what it was when I met them in. I just didn’t know how to advocate for myself.
And that’s when I heard about the software that was developed at this company called SAS in Cary, you know, the data science company. And it was designed to help people who are blind and low vision visualize graphs and charts using sounds. And I thought it was super cool.
But it was really the coolest part about it was, it was designed by this guy named Ed Summers and he had the same eye condition as me and lived in Cary, North Carolina and the same place I grew up, same place I never thought anyone blind could ever live and so I, I try I, up until that point, it was 17 years since I’d been diagnosed. I had never met another blind person and I tried for months to get in touch with them without any luck. And then finally, my wife said, if he can live in North Carolina, maybe we can’t too.
And so we found this house online and we told my folks and they got so excited and my dad immediately jumped in the car to go look at this house. And as he’s driving, he’s talking to us on the phone and he started yelling at something. I was like, what are you doing dad? He’s the hell, there’s a blind guy in the road.
Maybe he’s the guy you’re trying to get in touch with. Please don’t yell at blind people on the road. And he’s like, all right, get out of the car and walked over to this poor guy and says, are you ed Summers? And the guy says, yes.
And my dad just puts the phone to this poor guy’s ear, he says my son is trying to reach you. And so after, after I’m apologizing to him, I, he agreed to meet me. I came down and a 30-minute conversation turned to three hours and he introduced me to the president of a company called LCI, which is the largest employer of Americans who are blind, was located in RTP. And he wanted to start up a new business that was focused on creating upward mobility for people who are blind in technology services. And that kind of eventually led to the formation of abler.
Dana: Awesome. Yeah, that does that’s, there’s so many good things about it. Like I really, I mean, I really love, I, when you’re, when you were telling your story and you were talking about hiding your vision loss. I, all I can think of is
how do you hide your vision loss?
Well, not that, but like how isolated it has to be, like how lonely that has to feel that you can’t be, can’t be your real self. You can’t be your true self. Then the fear of the judgment, and I I’m really, I really resonated a lot, like, because I think all of us do that as some parts of ourselves as we hold somethings that like maybe too close to the chest that we don’t share with other people.
John: Yeah. I mean, it’s like that. Yeah. I was always keeping close to my chest was that imposter syndrome, because I was always, I was always wearing a mask, right. There was this mask of somebody, cause when I looked at executives, this is what they look like.
This is how they acted. And so you, you wondered how I, how I faked it. Often the case, it feels in the social settings, it was by drinking because it was easy to say I can’t drive because I’ve had too many to drink. Oh, I bumped into this because of, you know, I had a drink. So it was easy to kind of hide it behind that.
But when it came to the work piece, my team, like the teams, once I got hired, my team saw what I did and they would, it was often an unspoken thing. Sometimes it was spoken, but we never, it wasn’t something we broadcasted. So like when we were in Africa, I had to go sit in the same I’d eat at the same, if I had a business meeting, I go eat, I set the reservation at the same restaurant every time I’d sit in the same seat, I’d order the same thing and I’d get there early and I leave after.
Are you totally blind or can you…?
It’s interesting. So with retinitis pigmentosa, you start to lose your sight essentially, you get tunnel vision. Well, mine was unique in the sense that I had this big donut. And so I had some sight on that outside of my eyes.
And then my central vision kind of got blurred, and so I couldn’t see what was in front of me, but this like blind spots all around. Often, like when I walked through a bar or something, I go through the sides of my eyes. And like my friend said get skinny and that’s how I go sideways. I kind of look around with my side of my eyes.
And so we had this whole way. I’d shoulder up, put my hands on my buddy shoulders, and that’s how we navigated places. But then once I joined LCI, they are the largest employer of people who are blind and they are nonprofit, but they make money. And that money that they make goes to organizations fighting blindness, and they actually funded the development of the Duke eye hospital.
And so the, the Duke eye hospital was actually named after LCIS old CEO bill Hudson. And so because of that relationship, I ended up going there to do my annual checkups and, I last year or two years ago, I went there and I met this doctor and he’s a geneticist and a retina specialist and a specialty was in the mutation that’s going on in my eye.
And in 20 years I was, there was never any hope for me. And when he met me, he’s like, I have hope for you and I have treatment for you. And so I started doing treatments. I go in, I get these injections every three, four months in my eye, which is ridiculously painful. And then, you know, after a year and a half of the treatment and she said, I think your eyes healthy enough.
We can do cataract surgery, but its high risk, but there’s a probability you can get some usable vision back. And so this past January, I had this this cataract surgery. I remember I was in the bathroom. I was looking in the mirror and all of a sudden I could, usually just see a brown blob in the front of the mirror.
And all of a sudden I could see my eyes and my face. I called from my wife and she’s got these bright green emerald eyes and I could see her eyes, call from my sons and I was able to see their, their little noses, their little cheeks, little lips. And, and it was the first time I could see their faces. So I just got some sight back.
Courtney: That is so cool. Yeah, that’s crazy, and congratulations. I’m sure that was amazing, seeing your kids’ faces.
John: I mean, being able to see their faces, it’s something like. I feel like I’ve in my heart. I knew what they were like. I knew what they looked like to me. Now it’s just pretty cool to be able to see, like when we’re in the, in the pool during the summer time, the reflection off the water, like it has to be in the right lighting for me. And so that was like, it was so cool to hear the laugh plus seeing their little cute little faces. That’s probably the coolest.
Courtney: What I love about your story is like your sense of adventure, even in the face of that adversity. Like, I feel like for me, I have so much anxiety and my world will become smaller and yours only got bigger because of it. Yeah, so talk about that. Like how, like, how do you overcome that? What drove you?
John: I think, you know, I went to high school here in Raleigh called Enloe, and my buddies were just like, I had a great group of friends, these Enloe guys, and we did, you know, high school kids do. We partied, we had fun, and they were also focused on their careers and as interesting, cause it wasn’t like something, they like talked about their careers, but everyone became really successful. It was almost like we knew everyone’s going to be successful. And they were like, we’re not going to let you down. You’re not going to; I’m not going to leave you behind.
And it was kind of like keeping up with them, but it was like not trying to keep up with them in a competition. That’s what we were going to do. And so I think that my drive to keep on moving forward was, was that I just wanted to have the future that I thought I could, I was going to have before. And there’s almost this race against time, right?
I’m like, all right, I’m going to be losing my sight. I better do this stuff. And so one of those adventures I did was climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. so this is when I moved to Africa, I said, I’ve got two goals for myself. One, I want to be a top 30 executive under 30 in Africa, and I want to reach the top, the highest peak in Africa.
And so when I did that, I went with one of my high school buddies and it was so interesting, the same ways that we navigated the bars. Like I talked about shoulder up and get skinny, all of these things that we talked about, they kept me inclusive, being able to hang out and do things. You know, we use that same communication and that’s how we climb the mountain, but he was that drive.
It was just like doing things with my friends. I think it was just, I wanted to, I just want to be, I wanted to belong, right. And I think that’s what kind of kept me going, I guess, like, so my body could do it. I want to do it with them. I want to, I want to belong. And I said, because I’m actually I’m in the process of writing a book right now. And the title is Don’t Ask a Blind Guy for Directions: a 30,000 Mile Journey for Love, Confidence, and a Sense of Belonging, and I think that that sense of belonging is really why abler is about there. You know, we’re trying to make these more inclusive and I don’t ever want people to go through the stuff that I went through and that’s why we’re trying to remove barriers, but I think that’s what was always driving me. Just to fit in. And I think everyone can relate to that.
Dana: Yeah. I love that. I, I, we have children and I have a middle schooler, she also has a middle schooler and I feel like that is like the constant conversation all the time, is there needs to find that group and to feel like they are seen and heard, and that they’re portraying who they want to be or whatever.
And it starts so young. Like it starts at such a young age that need to, to belong and to belong to something. And I think that’s amazing. I think it’s amazing to think about changing the world or someone going through something similarly where they don’t have to struggle the same way, you know,
Courtney: like it literally major world bigger and not smaller having that disability, which is like phenomenal.
John: The funny thing is that I didn’t think Cary, North Carolina, Research Triangle Park, it wasn’t somewhere I could belong, right. Cause the trouble with transportation. So I had to look bigger. I had to look outside and that’s why, you know, talking about the 30,000-mile journey around the world, was to realize that I could be here.
I just had to figure out how to see my way through. If I didn’t have to go through the visual loss and the sight loss. I don’t think I’d ever leave, right. And what I have those same experience?
Courtney: Yeah. That’s so interesting. I was, I was listening to it. I’m going to botch this terribly, but it was a Paralympian, I don’t remember who it was and she lost her legs, can’t remember how she lost her legs, but she was a gold medalist Paralympian, and she talks about how when she lost her legs, it was literally the beginning of her life right. Like, she’s run further, gone, further, done more since she’s lost her leg. So she ever would have, if she had kept them.
Right. And it was just like, it’s amazing, like inspiring story on just perspective, right? Like a lot of life is about perspective. And what perspective are you going to have when you’re kind of dealt whatever it is that you’re going to be dealt in this life. And I just think it’s super inspiring that you’re able to look at this, and I’m happier back in Cary and it’s kind of gotten full circle for you. Like I can go on here just like I could belong there, but just your ability to look elsewhere and go on adventures and journeys and not let that limit you, but really allow it to kind of teach you, you know, and grow you, shape who you are.
John: Y’all are going through the same thing as entrepreneurs, right? I think all entrepreneurs, we go through that resiliency. It says it’s those, it’s the things that push us to the edge. You know, sometimes people talk about, oh, competition is a bad thing. I think competition is a good thing because that’s what caused you to be innovative.
Right? So my eyes, my loss of sight is what caused me to be more innovative, caused me to rethink different solutions to the same problems. Y’all know this, right, you know how that resiliency and the hustle you talking about? Everything you’re talking about is I think it’s the same thing. It’s just a different context.
Dana: Yeah. What do you, what do you think you would have told, tell your, if you could go back and tell your 18-year-old self, like when you got that diagnosis, what would you, what would you say to him?
John: Keep messing up, keep screwing up. Just do it. You mean? Cause like it was those failures, right, because I sometimes wonder like, oh, had I known, gosh, what would happen? But I feel like it was the keep messing up. Just keep doing what I’m doing, but just have faith. Right? That’s like just have faith that things are going to be okay. And I think that, cause I do like all the favors I had have really helped me get to appreciate the good stuff. Right.
And but that’s why, you know, when I write my story, I share my story and all this stuff I do is that I want people who are going through challenges to realize that the resilience of that build that, that bounce back. That’s what it’s all about, right, and so when we go through these challenging points, it’s like, that just means harder it is just the higher we’re going to bounce back.
And also the feeling, like you’re not alone, right? We’re all going through, everyone has their challenges may have been sight and other people have other things like that, but the one thing that I also like to talk about is the fact that I am not a Paralympian. I’m just a, I’m just a screw up kid from Cary, North Carolina, you know, who just kept on you know, moving forward.
And I think that’s the thing. when I was in DC after I lost my job, and before I met ed summers, I was in a really low point and I was listening to a lot of podcasts and I wasn’t leaving my house because I was scared at that point to walk around because I was bumping into things I didn’t want to get hurt and I didn’t want to hurt anyone now, just like I couldn’t drive now.
I couldn’t even walk outside. So I was listening to a lot of podcasts. I was thinking this, listen to this podcast called Guy Raz, How I Built This and he had chef José Andrés, which is a big restaurant tour in DC area. And he was talking about luck can’t find you unless you keep moving. And that that’s, that’s kind of, it really kind of made sense to me.
He’s like, cause like if you sit at home, you’re never going to have that lucky break. And so that’s when, you know, I started keep, moving became my mantra. So if I was going to tell any, my 18-year-old self, I was like, keep moving, keep doing stuff going back to keep failing because something you’re going to get your break.
And I think that’s the key thing is that everyone needs to keep moving forward because it’s easy to sit down, but you’re not going to find luck or you’re not going to find what you’re looking for.
Courtney: So tell us exactly what abler does and like a non-tech way. Not like programming, like whatever, but like in general layman’s terms.
John: So I describe it as, you know, if you go to a building, you see a wheelchair accessible ramp, we’re essentially doing that for the web. So we’re making the wheelchair ramp for the internet and making sure that people who are blind or have other disabilities can access the internet and our phones and digital content, by making sure that the code or the way that websites are written are written in a way that can be accessed by all people.
And so we actually kind of the differentiator about what we do is that we actually use people with disabilities to go through and provide, do testing of websites and to make sure to highlight what are the issues and the, to work with the developers to make sure that they can resolve them.
Courtney: It’s not just for blind people. It’d be like for like somebody who might be deaf as well?
John: Correct. So, you know, so for instance, like going through a website, it’s actually for all, all abilities. So, you know, somebody, if you look at a video, someone who’s deaf can’t hear the words. So there has to make sure, we want to make sure close captioning is there.
So think about somebody who may have a cognitive disability. They may not be able to pay attention for too long. So we make sure that things are as simply written in a way that is more accessible. It can be read by and consumed by all people. And so, you know, there’s different aspects of, of what we go through.
There’s guidelines with it, and if developers, web content developers really kind of followed all the right rules, there wouldn’t be any issues, but because people take shortcuts, we need to go back and make sure we correct those. And it’s really about being intentional about it.
And so if you think about it, like if you make your websites more accessible, there could actually be better SEO, meaning search engine optimization. Because for instance, like if you have a picture on your website and you can just have the picture there and it may just, but when somebody who’s blind, we, the way we go through, we listen to it.
We listen to the software that reads to us, everything on the screen. We go to that picture. It may just say JPEG12345678910. You actually add alternative texts and describe an image, right? For your podcast it could be two sisters sitting at a table, having a glass of wine in front of a microphone.
That gives me context right, of what that image is. Now, when somebody looks up online, oh, sisters drinking wine in a podcast, at a microphone you’ll pop up, right. Otherwise it’s just JPEG12345678910. So it’s, what we realize is that accessibility will help all people and a perfect example of accessibility, helping people.
You mentioned you had kids and did y’all use to have strollers? You take your kids on the strollers a lot? Do you remember the curb cuts that are right? That’s the perfect example, curb cuts. So if you went to a place where there was no curb, you have to like lift up the stroller and lift it up. But those curb cuts were actually designed for people with wheelchairs.
And so when you think about that, that helps people, you know, in New York City, if I have a suitcase, it makes it easier for me to go. If I have a stroller, it makes it easier for me to push my kids in. And so you think about that it’s made, it’s designed for one group of people but helps all people.
Dana: Yeah. So when did you realize that you wanted to do something like this? Like, what was, was there like a, a moment in your kind of career where you’re like, okay, this isn’t really what I want to like really just start focusing on?
John: When I met Ed Summers and I came back home and I was talking to him, he’s like, you know, you got to start reaching, you just be open about your vision loss.
And he’s like, you’ve got to learn as a blind person. You’ve got to talk about it. And I was like, all right, fine. And he’s like here in the triangle, there’s lots of, of companies who have diversity and inclusion programs, you should talk to them about, be open about your vision loss. So I was like, all right, perfect.
I’ll do that. I reached out to every triangle business with a diversity inclusion program, not a single one responded to me. I started thinking about it, like with my education, my experience, and my privilege, if I can’t find a job, what are other people who are blind going to face?
And so, as I mentioned, I was listening to a lot of podcasts and I had listened to the podcasts about Tom shoes you know, you buy a pair and give a pair of shoes to somebody in need. I liked the model and I was like, well, but instead, typically wherever I go, I have a pair of sunglasses on with me or on me. And so I wanted to make sunglasses first and I want to make sunglasses instead of getting a pair of sunglasses that someone in need, I wanted to have them made by people who were blind.
And so that’s what, cause I thought if I give someone a job, I give them hope. I give them life and this generational impact. And that’s why he had introduced me to the president of LCI, Jeffrey Hawting. And so that’s why I got introduced, and that’s when I realized, manufacturing is great, cause that’s what LCI does.
But when we start to think about that upper mobility and having meaningful careers in the knowledge base, because think about it. In our area here in the triangle, there’s this tech companies coming here all the time and tech jobs, and they’re paying a lot of money. Why can’t people with disabilities take part in that as well?
And that’s when I realized that sense of belonging, why can’t they be part of this growth that we’re seeing? And that’s what really caused me to really think about my own lived experiences, what kept me out of careers. And so how can I help other people?
Courtney: I love that. It’s funny. We had another entrepreneur on the show that referenced Tom’s as their inspiration for starting their businesses as well. Like that model, yeah. Jess Ekstrom from Headbands of Hope. And she modeled her company after Tom’s like that’s who inspired, that concept of business for good. It doesn’t have to be a nonprofit or a for-profit, it could be a for-profit business that does good in different communities and whatnot.
John: Exactly. Yeah, I think that’s it. I mean, that’s, and I think we’re seeing a lot more of those and I it’s really cool to see the B Corps and I mean, the shoes I wear, I wear Allbirds and they’re a B Corp. Right, social good. I mean, I think there’s some, some really good products out there. And actually one of my favorite things I’m wearing a cool watch right here.
And the watch. It’s called Eone. And its a, it’s a tactile watch that’s designed for people who are blind, but it’s actually made for all people. That’s why Eone, it’s everyone. And this company is like, it won the design of the year award from 2012 in London. But this kind of company, these are some really cool things that you can, that you can have a social impact.
Courtney: Yeah. So it’d be like to ask everybody, like, in their particular entrepreneurship journey, so starting Ablr or whatnot. Did you ever have like an oh shit moment where like, you’re like, this is not going to get off the ground or like some sort of roadblock that felt insurmountable or just even just doubt, like periods of doubt with it?
John: Every day. I still, I was just talking to my partner just right before this, you know, we mean you’re making, you take two steps forward one step back, right. And you just don’t know, sometimes you just don’t know how big is this step going to be back, right. Like, and you know, when things seemed great, to get all these accolades and all this stuff, but the struggle is real, right.
It’s like, and it’s like, we think about our team kind of like, as an entrepreneur, it’s like the challenges that we face and trying to keep encouraging the team, right. Keep them motivated, keep them, cause you’re like, it’s like being a parent almost. You’re shielding your, your, your team from the challenges out there.
And I think that’s, that’s it every day. And so I do feel the oh shit moments all the time and I feel it, and in my unique, my situation is unique because although I’m like an intrapreneur, right? So I’m not an entrepreneur who, where I’m like, this is my money out of my pocket, because then I can say, But I’m actually using someone on another company’s money.
Right, because I’m using another company money there, if I don’t show them the money quickly, they’re going to be like, you’re outta here, right? Right so my entrepreneur journey is a lot different because I may have money, right. I may have this paycheck coming in every month or every, you know, all the time, but it’s, I just don’t know when they’re going to say, hey, this isn’t enough.
We tried it; you’re done. And that’s the oh shit moments I feel, because that’s, that’s a terrible weight. It’s like the psychological safety. I don’t know what’s going to happen. And that’s what. Yes, having investors is tough.
Courtney: Yeah. We’ve heard that before, too.
Dana: I know we always joked about, because we had a pretty raw, like rough start to our business and we’re like, wish we had investors. The more we talk to people with investors are like, it’s so hard.
Courtney: Yeah. If you can bootstrap it, bootstrap it.
John: Yeah. Cause it, cause they’re going to also, you’re going to owe them money. They’re going to keep bootstrapping, right. It’s all of a sudden, you’re like, yes, you’re bootstrapping. You’re hustling. And you know, I’m, I’m lucky cause I have a, there’s a, there’s a great mentor. There’s a person who really kind of helped me get into the space, and his name is Donald Thompson. I don’t know if y’all have met Donald and, and yeah, so, so I actually was at a tech conference and I had launched LCI Tech, the pre-Ablr business and
LCI Tech, it was really just me, there was a lady who with, she had 40 years of work experience with the state government and she liked to shop too much that she, after retirement, she still needed a job and she was colored blind. So she, she joined my team. And then I had a young lady who had zero years of work. And her first job was with me. So that was my first team. We were a motley crew of people and we had to learn how to do the accessibility work in, and we did, and I started to, like, we started generating a little bit of revenue here and there. And I went to this tech conference and this, this guy speaking Donald Thompson, was talking about diversity inclusion in tech diversity inclusion and I was like in the business case.
And I was like, oh, this guy’s talking just like me. And he offered a meeting and went for coffee. I jumped at the opportunity. And so when we met, he’s like, I never thought about people with disabilities in tech, and I never thought that people disabilities and DEI, and that’s when he started having people from his team come and meet me and he became just like, that’s how we created Ablr. It became a joint venture between his businesses and LCI, but he’s been a great mentor and he, he helps keep that that that hustle alive, he keeps showing like, you know, he doesn’t want to give us a lifeline.
He’s like you figure it out, cause that’s when you you’ll, that’s when that innovation comes on you when you feel that struggle, because you’re getting a paycheck every month, every week or every month, you’re getting a paycheck. But to keep that hunger, you got to feel that pain. So it’s good and bad.
Right. And so I, DT’s a big role model in that.
Dana: That’s awesome. I feel that so deeply, like even on like the very basic level, like with our employees, like if you always solve their problems for them, they’re never going to solve it. They’re never going to be able to do it and they’re always going to need me.
And so there’s been many things, ’cause Courtney is like such a like, oh, I’ll help. I’ll help. I’ll do it. I’ll do it. And like, no, you let them fail. You didn’t let them figure out how to plunge a toilet, let them do it, let them fail at it, you know? Like, and then give them the number for the plumber and like,
They’re doing much, much better.
Yeah, they are doing, they are doing much better, but I don’t blame them for it. It’s not their fault. It’s our fault for like holding their hand the entire time and not letting them actually like attempt to try and to do something. And I think that’s so true for business in general is that, you know, the going through hard times are hard and they really suck and everyone knows that, but I feel like it does make you become more intuitive, and it only makes your business stronger. And at the end of the day, I totally agree.
Courtney: So what’s been the most rewarding part of your journey on the other side of it, like what’s the pinnacle moment for you?
John: There’s this person on my team, her name is Shannon and she’s blind and she was working in manufacturing and manufacturing is a noble profession. Don’t get me wrong, but she was under employed there. She had tech skills, like as someone who’s blind and had good computer skills, manufacturing just wasn’t necessarily the right place for her in my mind. And so she was actually the first person I brought on.
And when I first started LCI Tech, the precursor to abler, I started thinking about call centers. I was like, maybe I can put people in blinding call centers, but that’s when I realized things were just not accessible. We had to step back. And so Shannon ended up going back into the manufacturing facility because I failed at that attempt to building a call center.
Once I built up that accessibility team, the first thing I did was I went back into that manufacturing, I was like, come out and you’re coming with me. And he has like so loud in this printing press. I was like, come with me, you’re, let’s get you out of here. And I brought her on and she learned how to do the accessibility work. And now she’s a senior analyst and she’s just rocking it and she’s training people.
So when you ask me what my biggest pinnacle, it’s not the big contracts we’ve been getting, but it’s her development. That person’s development because that’s a front mobility. So no matter if they shut down my funding tomorrow, I know that I helped her have a different quality of life. And there’s other people that first person I heard that, Vonn, the lady that had no work experience two years on my team, she left and she joined McDonald’s accessibility team and she’s crushing it, right.
They never had a career before. And all of a sudden they have a career, right? Not just a job, a career and skills that can take them and have a, you know, they don’t have to rely on social security, disability, insurance anymore. They have career skills that they can make money and do what they want to and that’s, that’s the biggest success.
Dana: It’s amazing.
Courtney: I love that, speaking my language. I always say that my biggest accomplishment is the team that works for me. Like it is an honor to employ my employees, like the best team is when I’m the weakest link, and I truly believe that like, I’m the weakest link on my team and I know I’ve built a great one because of that, you know, which I love. I totally love that.
John: No, for sure. I mean, like it’s the people behind that, right? It’s the people who I can use my platform to help out and people with disabilities they’re often, you know, not considering the DEI discussion, they’re not often, you know, at the table. And you know, when you really think about the blind community, I think it’s 80% of the population don’t have a job. So there’s a lot of people we can make a big impact on. And if I can speak for a few of those, if I can make a few impact changes in people’s lives that’s it.
Dana: Thanks everyone for gathering us today to talk about the hustle. For our episode with John, we’re drinking a vodka soda with olives, John’s go to drink. We hope we get the chance to make it this week and cheers to keep screwing up. To learn more about John and his business, visit ablr360.com, follow them on Instagram at ablr360 or follow his personal account at johngsamuel. You can also find and connect with John on LinkedIn.
Courtney: to learn more about our hustles visit canddevents.com anthemhouse.com. thebradfordnc.com and hustleandgather.com or follow us on Instagram @ canddevents, at anthem.house at thebradfordnc, or at hustleandgather. And if you liked the show, be sure to subscribe and leave us a rating and review. This
Dana: This podcast is a production of Earfluence. I’m Dana
Courtney: and I’m Courtney.
Dana: And we’ll talk to you next time on Hustle and Gather.
John Samuel is the CEO of Ablr, Tedx speaker, and host of the All Access video series.
Hustle and Gather is hosted by Courtney Hopper and Dana Kadwell, and is produced by Earfluence. Courtney and Dana’s hustles include C&D Events, Hustle and Gather, and The Bradford Wedding Venue.